Karn at his sculpture exhibition, Hamilton Gallery, London. Dec. 1980. Photo by Fin Costello.

Karnal Knowledge
Fan Library, July 1982. p. 14-18.

Spontaneous combustion could be compared unfavourable to Mick Karn's energy output. The most fun-loving, extrovert member of japan, he's also the most accessible character of the foursome.

It is probably safe to say that as long as it involves using his hands, Mick's game to try it. So far he's wrapped his talented palms around everything from clay to cooking ingredients, from bassoons to basses, always to emerge with a professional result despite his lack of formal training or prior experience.

The natural showman, his style tends towards the flamboyant, the theatrical flourish. Over the years, Mick has literally been changing the face of Japan, darting from purple silk jumpsuits with matching streaked hair to pink locks and heavily made-up eyes to Oriental austerity and a pierced nose.

In Japan, the country, he seemed to visibly wallow in the hysteria surrounding the band, flashing smiles at the girls and teasing them with his odd little tippy-toe balletic runs. His extraordinary stamina and ability to pull a good pose onstage led him to being pushed upfront in their live shows.

The perfect foil for introvert David, you'd think. And you'd be right, but only when they decide to attract and not repel each other like warring magnets. Mick and Dave are diametrically opposed characters -- when they can work together, the perfect creative tension is maintained, but when they can't...

At the moment, due to personal scuffles that Mick's already aired in public, they're going through a repellant stage. But Mick's the sort of bloke to bounce back, or let his artistic frustrations pour out in some other direction. Always the opportunist, he started young...

The Early Days:

"I always thought, when I was a little kid, that there must be something in music that makes you feel really good when you're playing it, and the first chance to try it out was in Junior School, where there used to be a little orchestra to play and sing the hymns to, and I used to play mouth organ in that. But I wasn't really enjoying it, so I began playing the violin, which I did for about three years. But still something wasn't quite clicking, and I gave it a break."

"Then when I went to senior school, I started playing bassoon in the School's Symphony Orchestra, which still didn't really satisfy me. It didn't feel right until I got a bass, it felt like I was learning to play in instrument the way someone else was enjoying it rather than finding out for myself."

"That was when I was 15, exactly the same time as Steve got the drumkit, so we began playing instruments together to Dave's songs. That's why it's so hard to name influences when people ask, 'cos it wasn't like sitting down and playing with your favourite record, it was playing with each other first."

Fan Library: So you had quite a rich musical background before you started playing bass?

Karn: "Yeah, but I can't remember much of it. I wouldn't be able to play those instruments now. I'd like to have a go though."

Fan Library: how did you develop your bass style, what sort of influences?

Karn: "I think practically everyone influenced me bass-wise, every time I listened to a song, I'd be listening to the bass. I always had two guitars, one of them to play at home, without amps, the other to play in rehearsals. The one I had at home, I took all the frets off, so basslines I was making up at home I'd find increasingly difficult to play in rehearsal. So i bought myself a fretless bass. I can't say who influenced me more than anyone else. The one bass player I really admire now is Percy Jones, who plays with Eno a lot, who is my favourite artiste.

Anyway, I think it's a bad thing on certain instruments to learn sequences, scales and what have you. We're all self-taught and I think if you learn scales you can become too independent on the as part of your style. It's art like any other art and it has to be felt."

Fan Library: Do you think a lot of people will be claiming you influenced them?

Karn: "Yes...it surprises me, it really does. It never ceases to. Because the way I play the bass is wrong, technically very wrong. The way I use my hands is no the way I'm supposed to. To this day I don't know what notes I'm playing. I just go on what I hear in my mind. But it sounds right me, and the rest of the band! But for other bassists to turn round and say they like it...I just can't believe it!"

Photo by Virginia Turbett.

Fan Library: Do you think they can tell from the way you play that you're not doing it correctly?

Karn:"I'm sure they can. And I cause a lot of problems in the studio where the notes I'm playing...you can't play them with a certain chord that's underneath, but as I'm one of the first people on record, it means everyone else has to change for me, and I end up feeling very unpopular!"

Fan Library: How has that affected your work with other musicians?

Karn: "Doing sessions with other people is one of the most frightening experiences. Robert Palmer asked me to go over to Paris a few months ago and I did that, but I was so scared. When I'm that scared, doing something new, I like to jump in the deep end and go all the way, so what I like to do when I'm nervous is ask if they'll let me -- warn them first that I won't know what notes to play if they tell me -- go ahead and put the bass down on the track without having heard the track first, and see what happens. That worked pretty well with Gary Numan, he kept the bass I did first time, and it worked with Robert Palmer, but all the other keyboard players had to change to play my notes! But once you do that, it gives you the confidence that you need."

Fan Library: Of course, now Gary Numan's gone and got himself another bassist who sounds just like you!

Karn: "Mmmm, yeah. I actually thought it was me when i heard the track! I couldn't remember doing that one! Actually, it's a real compliment."

Fan Library: I heard you had to change your style when playing with Akiko Yano.

Karn: "Yeah, but it's been really exciting doing it. It's a case of not knowing the notes I have to play, usually, but in this case I had to. I'd come in in the morning thinking right, they're going to love this one, playing to them and then them giving me a chart of all the notes written down, which I can't read, and me having to spend hours in another room working it out! But they seemed happy with it, and I tried to blend the two in the end, so I don't think people will notice it as being me when they hear it. I really enjoyed doing it."

Fan Library: I suppose you can't have your own way all the time.

Karn: "It's much harder, 'cos playing the way I do I find it comes easiest when I'm not thinking about it, or thinking as little as possible, that's why I like doing it straight off in sessions, but in this case I had to think of it, which is a lot harder."

Fan Library: It must've been a shake-up working with people that can write a score in five minutes.

Karn: "It was. And we were working with Masami Tsuchiya before that , and the taught us a lot of Japanese phrases to use with Riuichi -- My Lord, My Sire, give us a break and things like that, in case things got a bit too rough!"

Fan Library: What are you doing apart from sessions -- anything on your own?

Karn: "I'm doing a solo single in a couple of weeks time, but apart from that we're not really sure what we want to do. I'm going to be doing the Robert Palmer album in June, but I've decided I really want to get on with doing this album with Steve now, because we've talked about it so much, we've put it to the back of our minds, got on with everything else and left that to the end, but I think we should do that now. It's something we've wanted to do for ages. It's up to Virgin I suppose. They're all a bit worried though."

Fan Library: They've go this hot property that might never record again...

Karn: "But if we all take things as seriously as they think we do, which we do, then why can't they let us get on with our own individual arts, which is how I see it. It's restricting us."

Fan Library: I was surprised to read your revelations in 'Zigzag' -- why did you decide to come out with it all?

Karn: "I think it surprised a lot of people. Especially Virgin. When I did it, which was two months ago, it would've been great, but by now it's a bit...it's just that there was so much being written , so many questions being asked, it was getting to me really badly, even the fans were getting paranoid. I just wanted the truth to be written once, and once only, so everyone would know.

And of course, then 'The Sun' started saying I'd done interviews with them, which was horrible. But I've read recent interviews with Dave and it seems to me we're feeling exactly the same about things, we're putting pressure on each other on purpose, 'cos neither of us know exactly what we want to do.

We know we want to do something else, and the best way to do that is under pressure, we've always found, so we're putting it on each other, to see who can do it. Although we're very different people, we're always the opposites in the band, but that's the way it always worked with me and Dave, like a catalyst, which we need really. I put it down to that, we're just doing that again to each other."

Fan Library: It's always been like that between you, but you've never talked about it before?

Karn: "No, never really though about it before. This incident that happened is a bit bigger than the other, so it's made us think about it. It's a strange relationship."

Fan Library: It helps to life the mystique a bit. Your individual characters rearely come thoruh because Dave does all the interviews.

Karn: "But he doesn't like it like that, he wants it all to be equal, he wants all of us to be up there. We realised a long time ago, when the band started, that it would be very difficult for people to pick up on five different people's faces. There had to be one person, and slowly, when we think the time's right, we thought let's start pushing up another. So it was me next.

Dave hates doing live gigs anyway, so we decided I would be the front man there. And as we go along we're hoping to bring everyone up into the front. It's a long process."

Fan Library: Let's talk about your sculpture. How did you first get into it?

Karn: "I've never been able to draw or paint, that's as far as art went in school. I don't know what it was that made me buy the clay, it was while we were on tour, I bought some in Birmingham. And I started thinking of what to make with it. At that time i was really into hands -- I was amazed how valuable they were, to me especially -- what would I do without them, and when I got home from the tour I started making a hand.

I sat up all night doing it. And it just wasn't working out at all, and by then the clay was virtually hard, and I just squeezed in into a little ball. In the Morning it was the shape it is now -- it looked right. But not until it screwed it up! That gave me the confidence that I could make something."

Fan Library: How was it that if you couldn't draw, you could sculpt things in such detail?

Karn: "I do look a things very carefully, I love people, I always watch them and study them. When I go out, I don't get involved with what's going on, I just sit and watch faces. To me these representations aren't obscure or frightening, that's how people look. Things don't come out looking like that the first time, though, it's building up on things. It make take a week until it looks right. It takes a lot of patience."

Does Grey Matter (June '80)
Karn: "Bursting with ideas, frustrated to the brink of madness."

Fan Library: Some of them seem very tortured -- like the head and brains.

Karn: "It was done at the time we couldn't get into a studio, do gigs or even rehearse because of conflict hassles. Too many ideas and nowhere to use them -- the ideas explode, and that 's why there's such pain on the face."

Fan Library: What's your favourite, your most successful sculpture?

Karn: "Responsibilities -- the one with the man balancing at arm's length. Because that's much more personal. It was the happiest, most enjoyable on I made, 'cos I wasn't worried about getting it right, I was just enjoying it. I don't often enjoy doing them. I think it must bee the same with song writing -- I know Dave feels like that -- it's 50 per cent need."

Fan Library: I like, "Substantial Breakfast." That's got another hand in it.

Karn: "I love hands. I get worried about my lifeline though, 'cos it stops and starts again. I go to a lot of fortune tellers, and the tell me I'm going to go through a dramatic change between the ages of 23 and 25. Which is around now!"

Fan Library: Would you ever consider sculpting full time?

Karn: "No, I hate doing them but it's a necessary release. I have to lock myself away for a month. It's a lonely experience, but I couldn't consider swopping music for other forms of art. With music you're dealing with a totally different form of self-expression, and your sounds and ideas reach millions. How many sculptors can do that?"

Fan Library: Any other artistic endeavours planned?

Karn: "I wanted to try and get some play-acting in, but I don't know if there'll be time for it now. I'd like to do a TV play. I'd like to be in one, and write a comedy play for the stage. Again it's hard to do something like that and not be tagged a musician who's trying the acting bit."

Fan Library: What exactly happened with the Penguin Cafe restaurant project?

Karn: "It came and went in no time. It was opened properly, lasted ten months, but I stopped it when we began doing the, 'Tin Drum' album, I couldn't be cooking during the night and recording during the day -- no time to sleep! Which is probably why it took me so long to record, 'Tin Drum.' So it was just an impossible situation, something had to go."

Fan Library: You still cook though. Would you like to do it all again some time?

Karn: "Yeah, definitely. Way off in the future though. But I still do it, I cook for five people and eat it all myself! It's hard to cook for just one person."

Fan Library: Do you still prefer japanese food?

Karn: "I don't know about liking it best, but I seem to eat it every day at home. It's good for my health and seems to be doing my insides good."

Fan Library: Aside from food, you seem to have similar taste to Steve, and Rich.

Karn: "It's just that we all experience the same thing and Dave writes a song about it, so we can all relate to id. We do work very closely together, writing songs, even when I'm not on a track, there's still a close working relationship. The atmosphere to do a certain song in the studio won't e right sometimes unless we're all there in the same room, whether we're playing or not. The four of us make up the one ting. It's weird, I put it all down as spiritualism."

Fan Library: That may be why you have so much in common with the Japanese people, through going to japan as well.

Karn: "I think that actually changed us as people, when we went the first time. We were sick of everything Japanese by the time we went out there, sick of Japanese photographers and press, 'cos they were the only ones that would take notice anyway. But we were totally won over when we got there -- we found their way of thinking matched ours. A very peaceful, well-organised society. It calmed us down completely -- it's a good place to go and think."

Fan Library: What do you think about the role of women in Japan?

Karn: "That upsets me, it really does. And they can't take it if you don't want to treat them like they're lesser beings. One of my theories, theory number 143, is that women are actually going to dominate the world -- they've got to, they're stronger emotionally and mentally, and they work a lot harder. And they're getting the key jobs -- Prime Minister, the Queen...

All it'll take is in ten years time, all the major staff on TV stations to be female, and it'll be the men getting the bad sexist jokes on tele, not the women anymore. I think it'll snowball, get much bigger!"

Women considering such a dominant role would do well to take inspiration s from the man to be found in galleries, kitchens, studios, on stage and on screen too. He's a 20th Century Schizoid Renaissance Man...

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